One of the persistent problems that has dogged the industry is getting younger consumers introduced to eating seafood.

It’s as though, like green vegetables and salads, fish is an acquired taste, only appreciated in adulthood, and later adulthood at that.

It has been known for a while that younger people are less likely to eat seafood than older people and that seafood consumption increases with age. While efforts continue to get children and younger people to eat more, the trend towards an ageing population seems to be gathering pace and may work in the industry’s favor in coming years.

Photo: Andrew Mallison

In a recent article in the New York Times, the authors paint a concerning picture of schools closing and first birthday parties becoming rarer than funerals as birth rates drop towards the middle of the century.

According to the authors, China’s single-child policy (now reversed), the trend in developed countries towards smaller families, and more career opportunities for women are all contributing (though the number of women choosing to leave work during the pandemic has been a concerning trend).

These shifts will have widespread implications for society, but may offer a silver lining for fish consumption, as the increasing percentage of older people in society will favor fish on the menu.

Climate change and seafood

The second macro-level factor is climate change. Wild-caught fish has exceptionally low carbon emissions compared to other forms of animal protein, closely followed by farmed fish.

As governments step up their efforts to mitigate climate change, support for seafood production should follow in both the traditional food fish species as well as newer sectors like seaweed production, with its offer of net carbon reduction.

Meat and dairy products are already classed as poor dietary choices for the climate-conscious consumer – for those unwilling to become vegetarians, seafood is the obvious alternative.

While not a macro-level influence, the aquaculture industry has a raft of technological innovations in feed and farming methods coming to market, unlocking the potential to produce higher volumes by breaking the constraints of limited volume near-shore cage systems, and the reliance on traditional sources of protein and oil for feed use.

Offshore and land-based farming are already commercial realities and ready to go to scale, while protein from insect larvae and methane-eating bacteria can pair with oil from algae reactors to supplement previous ingredients.

Even better, the new feed ingredients can replace vegetable sources of protein and oil that are driving clearance of rainforests, need irrigating with precious freshwater and rely on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to boost yields.

On a similar industry level, the massive losses of wild-caught seafood to illegal fishing may start to be brought under control. Advances in vessel monitoring systems are being amplified by the introduction of Artificial Intelligence that can track transshipments and can identify vessels by their physical profile, using previously military-grade radar accuracy.

Looking good then?

Well, certainly some factors play in our favor, but there is no room for complacency. The "non-meat" meat sector has carved itself a place in supermarkets and restaurants and the heavyweights of the poultry, meat and dairy industries won’t be sitting by and watching their market share be eroded.

Seafood has more to do to stop the internal squabbling over farmed versus wild, reassure consumers that many of the criticisms are unfounded, exaggerated or out of date (think Seaspiracy) and address value by reducing waste losses through the supply chain.

If we can begin to do that, then yes, the future is bright.

Andrew Mallison is the principal at FishThink, a seafood consultancy, and the former CEO of the Global Aquaculture Alliance and IFFO The Marine Ingredients Organisation.